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The Bartender Spicing Up the Bay Area’s Cocktail Culture

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Joyce Slaton | September 6, 2018
Oakland’s Jared Hirsch raids the pantry for his drinks’ many secret ingredients

Mixologist Jared Hirsch’s signature cocktail is hot stuff — literally. Caged Heat, the bestselling cocktail at the hipster-swank Oakland restaurant he’s worked at for the past seven years, is a heady mix of bourbon, lemon juice, and Caged Heat syrup, a haunting brew flavored with tamarind, ghost pepper, and cardamom that Hirsch concocted on a whim and now bottles for sale at specialty stores and online.

Behind the bar, Hirsch is always intrigued by “taking something you think you know and flipping it on its head.” In this “Deceptive Dining” video, watch him transform the classic latte and make it surprising with espresso liqueur, Carpano Antica, and rye, topped with a foam composed of milk, egg white, and Fernet-Branca. As he puts it, “The Branca Café looks like a latte but tastes like so much more!”

“Fernet-Branca is the bartender’s handshake,” says Hirsch. “If you walk into a bar and order a Fernet-Branca, the next question is ‘Where do you work?’”

Branca Café

For the drink:
2 parts espresso
1 part bourbon
1 part Antica Formula
1 part Caffè Borghetti

For the foam:
1 part Fernet-Branca
1 part honey syrup
1 part whole milk
1 part water
3 egg whites

Pour all drink ingredients into an oversize coffee mug. Combine all foam ingredients into an ISI whipper, shake, and layer on top. Garnish with shaved nutmeg.

The creation of Caged Heat

Fortuitously for Hirsch, the bar where he works is located next to the Oaktown Spice Shop in Oakland’s Lake Merritt neighborhood. Hirsch regularly browses through the store for inspiration, and that’s what led him to the winning combination of flavors in Caged Heat.

“One day I happened to notice this Thai tamarind paste that’s used in a lot of Thai and Vietnamese soups, and then in another section there were ghost peppers,” Hirsch says. “It reminded me of tamarindos, the Mexican candy. I knew spicy would work with tamarind, but I also wanted an aromatic ingredient. And since both of the other ingredients are Southeast Asian, I decided to go with cardamom.”

After some tinkering, Hirsch hit the classic “tart-spicy-savory-sweet” flavor profile that makes Southeast Asian cuisines so devilishly addictive, with a decided kick — he notes that ghost peppers are the active ingredient in pepper spray. He tried the syrup in a cocktail made with the “classic 2-1-1 sour formula” of 2 ounces of spirits, 1 ounce of citrus, and 1 ounce of something sweet. It worked so well that he decided to offer it to the world.

“I put it on the bottom of the menu, assuming that people who liked spicy cocktails would find it, but it would be a niche product,” he says. “But by the end of the first week it had doubled the sales of all the other cocktails. It got so popular I couldn’t keep myself in syrup in the bar’s kitchen, so I had to start making it on a larger scale.”

One Kickstarter, one partnership with his pal Absinthia Vermut, and a lot of other steps later, and Caged Heat was a reality, adding its flavor profile to cocktails as well as plenty of nonalcoholic creations like Italian sodas, ice cream toppings, and barbecue sauce — which doesn’t surprise Hirsch, since his cocktail game is all about “experience and flavor, not inebriation.”

Cocktails Are Food

Flavor was the reason Hirsch became a bartender. But first he spent two decades working in theater tech and production management jobs at “every theater and ballet and opera company in the Bay Area.” After that, he was burnt out on theater.

“I would work 18 to 20 hours a day to get a show up, and when the show closes, you start right in on the next one,” he says.

A friend of his was the GM of a fancy Mexican restaurant across the street from Hirsch’s last theater job, and he offered Hirsch a host job. “I thought maybe I wanted to open my own bar or restaurant, so I went to work for one, and quickly found out I didn’t,” says Hirsch. “I lost my benefits, I lost my salary, but I gained a desire to go to work.”

But working at the restaurant opened his eyes to what cocktails could be. “I realized that everything I knew about liquor was wrong,” he says. He quickly understood that liquor was an “agricultural product that incorporates land, and elevation, and weather.” Spurred on by that realization, and by the craft cocktail movement that was beginning to rumble out of San Francisco in 2007 and 2008, he began to play in the kitchen.

“We were coming out of a time when vodka was the default so infusing things into it was the beginning of the craft,” he says. “I got a copy of Artisanal Cocktails by Scott Beattie and it hit me: cocktails were food. Why not incorporate other ingredients, vegetables, herbs? I started thinking of the cocktails like a course or a meal so I walked into the kitchen and pulled out ingredients: chiles, epazotes, tomatillos.”

His employers quickly saw this kid had talent and let him do his thing behind the bar. “I was making cocktails, and people said ‘This is delicious! Here is some money!’ So I went from being burnt out to being able to give people something they’d enjoy, that maybe changed their view a little,” says Hirsch.

“Once that happened I was off and running. I could still be a performer, make people happy, give them experiences and entertainment, and they’d pay me for it. What more could you ask for?”

5 drinks Jared Hirsch thinks you should try

Caged Heat
Hirsch’s signature cocktail uses his award-winning tamarind, cardamom, and ghost pepper syrup.

2 parts bourbon
1 part fresh lemon juice
1 part Caged Heat Cocktail Syrup

Shake, strain, and garnish with a dehydrated lemon wheel. 
Brown Derby
2 parts bourbon
¾ part grapefruit juice
½ part honey syrup
½ part lime juice
Shake, strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with a grapefruit twist 
Bee’s Knees
2 parts gin
¾ part honey syrup
¾ part lemon juice
egg white (optional)
Shake, strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with a lemon peel
Hotel Georgia
2 parts gin
¾ parts lemon juice
1 part almond syrup
1 oz. egg whites
2 dashes orange flower water.
Double shake, strain into a martini glass, and garnish with fresh ground nutmeg. 
Scofflaw Cocktail
1 ½ parts rye
¾ parts lemon juice
¾ parts dry vermouth,
½ part grenadine
Shake, strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with a cherry

To discover an array of deceptive dining experiences, click here.

To read about multisensory culinary experiences, go here.

To learn about delicious VR dining by Project Nourished, try here.

For ways to trick your own tongue, click here.


For more creative people, join the Fernet-Branca Family

Joyce Slaton is a writer, editor, and tour guide who lives in San Francisco. She writes about art, movies, parenting, and all the strange and interesting things that happen in the Bay Area.

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